Why I’m studying theological hermeneutics

Beginnings

As a seventeen year old university student I made a decision to become a Christian. This took place in north American evangelical context. I’m convinced that a very real change occurred in my life at that point. Subsequently, I was involved in an evangelical Church, which in many ways was typical. Our Christian community was quite homogeneous and in the process my belief system became very clearly defined. Yet, even at this stage of my life I would often ponder my interpretations of the Bible and wondered if we were interpreting correctly, what God wanted to tell us. For instance, were things being treated literally which should have been viewed metaphorically or vice versa, or were the meanings of words being dealt with appropriately. Statements like “‘all’ means ‘all’ and thats all all means” are still in my memory. This was an attempt to absolutize for theological purposes certain passages like Collossians 1:6 “… All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing …” However, an absolute understanding of the word “all” runs into theological difficulties when one reads 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Questions such as these accompanied me throughout the first phase of my Christian life. However, I never made the effort to make a serious investigation and in some ways my inquiring spirit became dormant.

Questions reinvigorated

Later, I moved to Europe as part of a church planting effort and in the process was confronted with views of the bible and Christian traditions that differed from my own. I had been fairly sheltered theologically in a homogeneous Christian tradition and was approaching things from a north American cultural viewpoint. This confrontation to my belief system caused me to consider if my belief system was in fact true and it reinvigorated my desire to investigate how we interpret the bible and to discover the idealized “correct” way of doing so.

The quest for truth

A few years later I had the opportunity to begin a theological education and finally settle these questions. My goal was to learn how to interpret the bible properly after which I could return to my Christian community with a strengthened certainty about what we as Christians should be doing. However, in the process of my theological studies it became ever more apparent that this was no easy task. I discovered that the theological convictions of many which I had previously discounted as being incorrect did have a biblical backing and were logical. The root of the differences were to be found not in the bible but in the presuppositions and traditions that one used to interpret the bible. In short hermeneutics the method one employs in interpretation was the key. So my focus went in that direction and my goal then became determining a water tight hermeneutical method which would result in the correct interpretation. I wrote my first thesis on the book “The hermeneutical spiral” by Grant Osborn. asking the question “How certain can we be that we are using the correct hermeneutic?” The results were rather disappointing. It seemed more and more the case that there is no absolute way of knowing on a purely rational basis if one is correct or not. Our starting point and presuppositions we have are things that we simply choose, accept and believe. One can surely narrow things down quite a bit but a water tight hermeneutic which could be used to “prove” a specific theological stance became less and less a realistic possibility (for more on this see Two leaps of Faith).

How should we interpret?

Not giving up I continued my studies at the masters level and wrote a thesis comparing the views of Kevin Vanhoozer in his book Is there a meaning in this text? with James K. A. Smith and his book The fall of interpretation. This investigation was a major turning point in my theological outlook concerning hermeneutics. Vanhoozer’s book is excellent but more or less went in a similar direction to what I had already done. Certainty and singularity in meaning can be improved if one approaches the bible using the paradigm that Vanhoozer recommends (this is of course debatable Integral and Differential Hermeneutics – A. K. M. Adam). However, Smith’s book provided for me a completely new insight and was especially convincing. In short he asserts that the need for interpretation can never be overcome since it is part and parcel of the way God created us. Thus, we must accept that we as human beings are in essence stuck in a situation where we all interpret differently because we are all embedded in culture, traditions and limitedness that cannot be overcome. For Smith interpretation is a good because it is part of our created nature and existed even in the garden of eden. To try and overcome the need for interpretation is in essence trying to overcome part of nature which God intended to always be there. Smith’s viewpoint was a radical change for me and for a long time took the wind out of my sails. If we cannot achieve certainty in our hermeneutic then why bother? I am still continuing my theological studies at the doctorate level and after my epistemological depression have recently overcome my doldrums and am investigating other avenues and approaches to theological hermeneutics which may not yield a 100% certainty but do hold some promise. The writing of A. K. M. Adam (see photo right and the link above) has reinvigorated me to continue asking questions and to seek some way of knowing more clearly what God wants to tell though the bible.

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Two leaps of Faith

Faith is an essential element of Christianity. It is included in Paul’s’ top three Christian Virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13). It is a never ending topic of discussion in sermons, literature and the like. In evangelical circles faith is often likened to trust. We are to trust what God says, believe it is true and live accordingly. This can be an enormous challenge. In this article I will contend that this type of faith has a sibling, which is often overlooked. Every time one trusts God in faith this sibling is present. Without it the act of faith is not possible.

The Qua and the Quae

A picture often used to describe faith is that of a father waiting to catch his child with outstretched arms. The child is standing on a window ledge, the father is calling the child and telling him/her to jump. There are many variations on this picture but the key element is always the same. The person doing the jumping must relinquish control and jump placing their destiny in the hands of the father. This illustrates the kind of trust I believe that God desires from us. It may involve dramatic episodes like placing yourself in dangerous circumstances such as a missionary or trusting God for financial well being via “faith”-offerings. It can also refer to rather mundane and long term steps people take in their lives like eschewing a profitable profession for one in the ministry or refraining from certain practices in the hope (or faith) that God will eventually reward such decisions. This is the first kind of faith and usually what one thinks of when discussing faith.

The second kind of faith focuses not on trust but on knowledge. Recall the picture of a child leaping into the arms of his/her father. Imagine that the child is so far away so that it is difficult to understand what his/her father is saying. In addition it is quite windy making his words even less understandable. Before the child jumps he/she must be convinced of what the father is saying. Maybe he isn’t yelling “jump” but rather “wait for the ladder.” If the child were to jump under these circumstances, it would not be faith but foolishness.

In order to act in faith one must first know what the act requires. In the past theologians recognized this distinction and used specific Latin terminology to distinguish these aspects of faith. fides qua creditur: the faith which by which it is believed (i.e. the jumping) and fides quae creditur: the faith which is believed (i.e. the knowing).

A Symbiotic Relationship

Thus, the qua requires the quae. The act of faith is dependent upon the determination of what should be acted on. Should the child jump or wait for the ladder? This relationship between the qua and the quae would seem fairly obvious. But is that all? I would suggest that the quae is also dependent upon the qua. To claim to know what one should act upon in and of itself requires a leap of faith.

The fides quae is fundamentally a question about knowing and thus epistemology. Two classical epistemological questions are:

  • How can I know something?
  • How can I be certain that I know something?

In my assessment there are three basic ways in which we can know what God expects of us:

  • The rational approach, which attempts to formulate specifics of the faith through interpreting the Bible.
  • The spiritual approach, which attempts to ascertain God’s will though prayer, meditation and the like.
  • The natural approach, which attempts to glean God’s will through experience and wisdom.

These are the ways we usually respond to the first first epistemological question. This is the how.

But what about certainty? How do we know we have truly achieved knowledge? This is a question which has been pondered throughout the ages from Plato to Descartes to Kant and on to Derrida. I would suggest that without a certain degree of fides qua (the jumping, acting, trusting kind of faith) the knowledge element fides quae is not possible. Consider the three approaches. There are different interpretations of the Bible, different schools of thought on how to interpret it correctly, how does one decide which rational approach is correct? And the spiritual method? Is it not possible to be deceived? The spiritual approach is perhaps the most passive of the three. A fides qua is almost implied in such approaches, since one must trust that God will inform him via the spirit. And the natural approach? A brief look at the diversity within Christianity should be enough to show that there are many options, experience and traditions all claiming to be correct. But is one really certain that it is correct? At the end of the day does not on simply take a leap of faith and decide for one tradition over the other. I believe that all three options ultimately at some point require a leap of faith, a fides qua. In terms of the analogy. At some point the child up on the window ledge makes a decision that he/she has understood what his/her father has said. In spite of the possibility that his message was heard incorrectly, a decision is made, an epistemological leap of faith, which in turn is the basis for the second existential leap of faith.

Thus, fides qua is dependent on fides quae but fides quae is also dependent on fides qua. A symbiotic relationship. But this cannot be, the process has to start somewhere, thou doth protest. That is another topic altogether and basically a “chicken or egg” riddle. Which came first? I cannot answer this riddle except to suggest the possibility that both may have come into existence simultaneously.

Things to ponder

If all this is true, then several questions are raised that are worth pondering. I will mention three:

  • How much emphasis do you place on the fides qua (faith action) as opposed to fides quae (faith knowledge)? In evangelical circles much focus is given to the fides qua. People are encouraged to make sacrifices, take a stand and be active on a number of issues. A ‘good’ Christian will act on his/her faith. The issues themselves are often given only cursory treatment. A quick reading of the bible or a short blurb from the last sermon or a quick prayer time suffice to supply the fides quae (knowledge) for the fides qua (action). Is not the fides quae also important?
  • Does God reward solely on the basis of fides qua? Is it not important what one believes? If only fides qua were important than doctrine becomes unimportant.
  • If a leap of faith is required even in the areas of knowledge, should we not engage differing opinions with humility? Where and how can we draw the line between differences in faiths?

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Vanhoozer: Doctrine as Epic

Guest Blog Post

Vanhoozer: Doctrine as Epic

Kevin Vanhoozer analyses a problem with systematic theology (which can alos be applied to confessional statements which result in “confessionalism”), preferring the term “epic” theology. He writes:

Epic provides a comprehensive account of how things are told from the perspective of a single “voice.”

…Transposed to theology epic takes the form of a monological system that unfolds its story from an absolute perspective. Systematic theologies resemble epics to the extent that they appear to be written by impersonal and omniscent narrators who stand nowhere in particular.

…What makes Christian doctrine epic is not its appeal to Scripture as such so much as its attempt to make one interpretation of the biblical testimony — an interpretation that necessarily, though surreptitiously, draws on the thought forms and perspectives of the interpreter — absolute. The epic voice in theology, assuming as it does the unversial applicability of its perspective, encourages uncritical repetition. Epic invites admiration rather than action. It fails to recognize that new situations may require new formulations.

…Epic prefers to rehearse the past. Even an inerrant epic is theologically inert unless it is performed. …there is no place for the eschatological, for the already/not yet, for the reader’s ongoing participation in the events of the narrative (The Drama of Doctrine, pgs 85-86).

Some of Vanhoozer’s thoughts may sound radical and subversive. He is actually arguing a very conservative opinion of Scripture and theology. And yet, he is definitely calling for a “new” understanding of how we conceive of reading the Bible and doing theology.

[More…]

Vanhoozer develops further his critique of “epic” theology under the categorical heading “cognitive-propsitionalist theology.” He writes:

Such theology is “cognitive” in its emphasis on coming to know the truth of objective realities and “propositionalist” in its emphasis on language as the primary truth-bearing informative medium.

…What is tempting in propositionalist theology is the idea that one can “master” divinity by learning the system of truths communicated through the language and literature of the Bible. What is tempting is the thought that one can package the Bible in a conceptual scheme that is tidier than the original. What is tempting is the suggestion that it is enough to know the information thus packaged. It is precisely this sense of distantness, even more than the grandeur of the systematizing vision, that makes propositionalist theology look epic. It is ultimately not a grand but a narrow vision, however, because it isolates the truths of Scripture, and the theologian, from the larger economy of salvation of which Scripture and its interpreters are a part. Cognitive-propositionalist theology risks deflecting doctrine from its proper role of drawing us into the drama by turning it into an ossified, formulaic knowledge that will either wilt on the vine or, on another plausible scenario, be used as a shibbolethic instrument of power” (The Drama of Doctrine, pgs 86, 87, 88).

These comments represent what I have been trying to formulate in my mind as an objection to “confessionalism” as it manifests in certain Christian communities today. Vanhoozer is not only correct theoretically but in practice too. The last paragraph is especially poignant and pointed. It is well worth taking seriously.

[WordPress Theological Hermeneutics]

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Knowledge and Wisdom, Notation and Music

Recently I spent several days at a monastery in quiet contemplation and learned a few things about knowledge and wisdom. Shortly thereafter I spent a few days using LilyPond software to score some music for our worship team. Putting both of these together has giving me a better understanding of the differences between theological knowledge and wisdom as demonstrated in mature Christian living.

The analogy goes as follows: writing a musical score is something completely different than playing or listening to music. Using the LilyPond software required a fair amount of technical knowledge. On the one hand one must understand something of how music works: keys, sharps, flats, timing signatures etc. On the other hand a form of scripting not unlike a computer program was needed for the software to produce a nicely formatted PDF file with the musical score. Now here’s the kicker, all that knowledge and effort did not produce one single note of music played.

A musical score is not a song. A song requires a musician who knows how to translate the musical score into reality so that others can enjoy it. The person who wrote the score may or may not be able to do this. And as is often the case the truly gifted musicians are not as gifted, when it comes to having a technical knowledge of music. That being said, there are also many who excel in both areas. Simply put, excellence in one area does not imply excellence in the other.

This is where I see the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge and especially theological knowledge has the ability to describe, document, categorize and explain life. Yet theological knowledge does not “play” life. Wisdom is found in a person who, just like a musician, can take the musical score from the theologian (pastor etc.) and implement it into the realities of life, so that knowledge achieves it’s God given goal.

Unfortunately many Christians (myself included) confuse discussions about the technicalities of musical scores with the playing of a beautiful song.

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